Paul's epistle to Philemon is his shortest letter among his other New Testament writings. Possibly for this reason some scholars call it a 'postcard-epistle'. Many who read through it may overlook its powerful message. Perhaps the thought that such a small letter could not contain any significant teaching. But, with a little meditation, many precious jewels can be found from what may appear on the surface to be a dried out treasure chest.
The story behind this epistle is that a slave, Onesimus, had escaped from his master, Philemon, and possibly robbed him as well. Onesimus fled Colossae to the huge metropolis of Rome where he could have easily gone about unnoticed amongst the crowds. While there he somehow met up with Paul and was led to Christ. He may have heard about Paul from his old master and sought out advice for himself about starting a new life. Paul's location was possibly well publicised, since he was in the Roman jail, and Onesimus presumably had no trouble finding him. When they met, Paul brought him to the Lord and counselled him regarding his obligations toward his master.
The result was that Paul sent Onesimus with Tychicus to deliver the epistles to the churches at Colossae and Ephesus. While at Colossae they were to present this epistle as well. In the letter he asks Philemon to accept Onesimus back and pardon him for any wrong. Paul adds that if any money is owed, then Philemon is to put it on Paul's account.
"I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me"
Philemon 10, 11
1. Who does Paul say he is a prisoner of?
2. Why is Paul in prison?
In the natural Paul was the prisoner of the Romans, but he saw it from another point of view!
3. How is Paul's philosophy in Romans 8:28 reflected in this situation?
4. How does Paul describe Philemon, and what does this imply about their ministries?
5. Who is mentioned here and also in Colossians 4:17?
In Colossians 4:16 Paul refers to the epistle to the Laodiceans. It is generally held that this epistle was the circular epistle of Ephesians. Therefore, we may assume that the people Paul addresses were brought to the Lord during his Ephesian ministry. Philemon and Apphia were probably married, and Archippus was probably their son (and also the pastor/elder of the Laodicean church). This household presumably came to the Lord under Paul's ministry and developed quite a bonding with the famous apostle. We can see that Paul showed a great deal of familiarity toward them.
6. How does Paul refer to Philemon's wife, Apphia, and what does this tell you about her?
7. How does Paul describe Archippus?
Sometimes we get the impression that the early church sat in pews and worshiped in a large building.
8. What impression though do you get from this and other verses of Scripture about the early church? (Rom. 16:5; 1Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15)
Christians originally kept going to synagogues to worship God together. But as the difference between them and the Jews became more apparent, they began meeting in people's homes. Their services may have started out as being similar to that of the Jews, but soon developed to praise, prayer, scripture reading and teaching (exposition of the Scriptures).
The church was forced to depend on these 'house-churches' because of the increasing persecution against them. For the first 300 years it carried on this way. Amazingly, it grew like wildfire!
10. What does this tell us about our attitude to buildings today?
Paul prays that Philemon will have God's grace and strength imparted to him, especially needed in light of what Paul was about to request.
Paul introduces the idea of a covenant relationship with God here in this verse
11. What is a covenant?
Paul introduces this thought by calling God- "my God". He says that Philemon was an occasion for thanking God. Obviously these words were not meant to flatter but to encourage him to carry out the proceeding request.
12. How often did Paul make mention of Philemon in his prayers?
There is an unbreakable love that extends toward God and the saints simultaneously.
13. How is this thought reflected in 1 John 4:20?
Paul prays that Philemon's sharing of his faith may become effective. This has two implications- firstly, that his fellowship with the saints may be fruitful. Paul repeatedly states that fellowship is essential for Christian maturity. Consider the following Scriptures- 1 Cor. 3:1-3; Eph. 1:15-18; Eph. 3:17-19; 4:11-16; Col. 2:2; 2Thess. 1:3.
14. What does Hebrews 10:25 say about fellowship?
Secondly, the sharing of Philemon's faith has implications towards the lost. Paul prays that his witnessing will be effective.
Paul was encouraged because of Philemon's ministry toward the saints. It actually gave him "great joy and comfort". This would have been timely encouragement for Paul as he was imprisoned awaiting his upcoming trial. Paul has a good understanding of what the Body of Jesus Christ was really all about. He rejoiced if someone's ministry was being fruitful, and felt for those under hardship. He wasn't threatened by another's success. Instead, he saw that success as being shared by the whole Body.
THE REQUEST - PLEA FOR ONESIMUS
"therefore . . ." Paul links his opening remarks about Philemon's love toward the saints with what he was about to request. It is this very reason why Paul writes the way he does because he knows that Philemon is a man characterised by love and doesn't need to be told do what is right. As an apostle, Paul had every right to command Philemon what to do. This authority was not something of his own doing. The authority that Paul had was "in Christ". It was God-ordained. It had not been given to him by some organisation of men, but came directly from God.
16. What does Galatians 1:11-12 say about Paul's ministry and Gospel?
Neither was Paul's authority an ego trip. Consider Paul's attitude in 1 Cor 15:9 where he describes himself as the least of all other apostles. The fact that Paul had this authority but chose not to use it toward Philemon shows clearly that Paul wasn't an egotist.
"Yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you - I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Jesus Christ"
17. How does Paul describe himself in Ephesians 6:20?
Some translations have Paul describing himself as "aged" or "an old man", but this is almost certainly a wrong translation of this original. Vines Dictionary notes that the word for 'aged' in the Greek is- presbutes , while the word for 'ambassador' in the Greek is- presbeutes. It would seem very unlikely that Paul, while addressing someone about his own age, would stoop to emotional pressure such as this.
18. Who are Christ's ambassadors now? (2 Cor. 5:20)
Paul makes an affectionate appeal for Onesimus. He obviously felt a close kinship with those that he led to Christ, enough in this case to actually call Onesimus his son. But this is what Christ can do to people who would never normally relate. Paul and Onesimus would have made an unlikely couple of friends if they had not met Jesus. Paul was from a noble family, well educated, very eloquent and well respected as a Jew and a Roman citizen. Onesimus was a slave, probably uneducated, possibly had dark skin, and was definitely a Gentile. What a mix!
19. What has Christ done about any divisions between mankind? (Col. 3:11)
Paul plays on Onesimus' name in this verse as he makes a pun to make a point. The name Onesimus means useful or profitable. Paul says that Onesimus was previously useless to Philemon. No doubt this slave had been paying 'eye-service' to his master but had not been a very faithful or willing servant.
20. It's interesting that Paul gives some of his teaching about the master/slave relationship in the epistle to the Colossians, which is where this epistle was destined as well. What did he say was the obligation of masters? (Col. 4:1)
2l. What did Paul say was the responsibility of Christian slaves? (Col. 3:22-25)
Little wonder then that Paul says that Onesimus would be very useful now. But Paul didn't limit his usefulness just to slavery. He told Philemon that Onesimus had become very useful to his own ministry. Just being with Paul was enough to continue his ministry and believe God for fruit despite the bonds that he was in. Their relationship became something special because of Christ, and this is what Paul was saying that Philemon could also enjoy if he chose to accept Onesimus back as a son.
VERSES TWELVE TO FOURTEEN:
Paul continues to speak highly of Philemon saying that he would dearly love to keep him on the team, but didn't want to do anything without Philemon's consent. The underlying thought is love. Paul's love for his new companion, and his old comrade in Christ; and also his assumption that Philemon would show love to his returning slave and thereby display his love for Paul.
22. What connection can you see between this verse and Esther 4:14?
VERSES SIXTEEN AND SEVENTEEN:
23. What's the similar thought between Matt. 25:40 and verse 17?
Paul concludes by saying that he will willingly pay back anything that's owing because of Onesimus- yet, Philemon owes him even his life because of Paul's ministry to him. He displays confidence in him by saying that he knows that he will do the right thing. To add further incentive to his request, he asks him to prepare a guest-room for him.
What an incredible challenge to forgive! Outside of Christ it would be impossible. But now with the Spirit of Christ living inside him, Philemon would find the strength he needed to forgive. Christ's clear teaching to His followers is that they must forgive those that offend them. The consequences of not doing so are severe- Matthew 6:15. We can only do it with Christ's help.
New Testament Survey
© 2001 Andrew Corbett, Legana, Tasmania